Ticks, particularly those that carry disease, are one of the summer hazards people fear most. While these tiny bloodsuckers have the ability to carry a myriad of diseases, they are best known for transmitting Lyme disease. With the growing number of cases throughout the northeast and the upper Midwest and the impending arrival of summer, you should know about ticks, Lyme disease and how to protect yourself from both.
Lyme disease is an infection spread by ticks that carry a bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi. Blacklegged Ticks (also known as deer ticks) that carry the bacteria can infect humans, causing a number of symptoms that range in severity, from a skin rash in early stages to joint inflammation and heart problems later on. While Lyme disease can be fatal, fatalities are rare. Not all blacklegged ticks are infected, but cases of Lyme disease have been on the rise.
Cases of Lyme disease occur primarily in the northeast and upper Midwest of the U.S., according to the CDC. In 2013, 95 percent of all cases in the country took place in just 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin. The map from the CDC shows the 2013 data and there have been some cases found along the west coast.
Most active during the warmer months, ticks thrive in wooded and bushy areas where there is protection from direct sun. Your best protection would be to avoid those areas and steer clear of high grass and piles of leaves. Covering up your skin with light-colored clothing could help, but ticks can find their way under clothes, so keep that in mind. Some bug sprays, particularly ones with DEET, can be effective according to the CDC and there is also clothing made specifically for tick protection. For more information on avoiding ticks, we consulted expert Dr. Tanya Kormeili.
If you enjoy hiking, mountain biking, gardening, hunting or other activities that regularly put you in wooded areas, what can you do to further avoid ticks? Well, contrary to popular belief, ticks cannot fly or jump, they instead hang on to grass or shrubs and wait for a human or animal to brush up against it and then they attach. Some helpful tips include walking in the center of trails and not sitting directly on the ground or on stone walls, while in tick-heavy areas.
You’ve just spent some time outside in tick territory and even if you’ve followed the tips, you’ll still want to check to make sure they didn’t catch a ride inside. You should thoroughly inspect your body and hair for ticks—showering could help take off any loose ticks. Wash your clothing and put it in the dryer to kill off ticks. Don’t forget to inspect kids, pets and gear that have been outside too.
You may have heard that nail polish, petroleum jelly or a lighter is key to getting rid of a tick, but that’s not the best plan, according to the CDC. The best way to get a tick off your body is by using tweezers. When you spot a tick, get a clean pair of tweezers and grab the tick as close to your skin as possible; when you have it by the head, pull it directly away from your skin in a steady motion. Don’t twist or yank the tick out too quickly.
The CDC recommends, “submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.” It’s also important to note that if you can find and remove a tick within the first 24 hours, your chance of getting Lyme disease will be greatly reduced, as it takes a while for the bacteria to spread from the tick.
Some early symptoms of Lyme disease include a red skin rash that often looks circular (called an EM or “bull’s-eye” rash), tiredness, fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, headache and joint or muscle aches. The characteristic EM rash shows in most cases of Lyme disease, but not all cases. After a few days or weeks, other symptoms might appear including other rashes, facial palsy, pain and inflammation of joints, severe headaches and heart issues. It’s important to catch Lyme disease early on.
“If you had a tick bite, live in an area known for Lyme disease, or have recently traveled to an area where it occurs, and observe any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention,” writes the CDC. It is especially important to visit a doctor that is familiar with diagnosing and treating Lyme disease, because early testing on might produce inaccurate results.
If caught early, most cases of Lyme disease can be treated using antibiotics. If caught later on, doctors might schedule long-term treatment, which usually involves intravenous antibiotics. Cases caught early typically respond well to antibiotic treatment.